Everything else

Art for Our Sake

If you’re an artist of any kind, you have a lot of power. Wield it well.

Illustration by Dylan.

Illustration by Dylan.

I’m in art school, and I love it. I love the high-falutin’ theory and the hands-on craft, the caffeinated nights and high-pressure critiques, the intensity of the inspiration and the challenge of the competition. I love that at the end of the day, my GPA is based on what I enjoy doing most. Art school has been an overwhelmingly positive choice for me, but also a complicated one. The obvious downsides include the thousands of dollars of student debt that I’m incurring and my practical concerns about the real-world utility of a BFA. But there are other, less-obvious ones: the fact that while I’m doing this “following my heart” thing, my non-art-school peers are studying climate science, social work, human rights law—you know, simple stuff like SAVING THE WORLD. They’re doing all this important, crucial work, and I’m being trained in proper thumbtack installation and graded on things like “appropriateness of color choice.” Slow clap.

But all I’m doing when I dip into that black hole of comparisons is discrediting my education and my hard work. In reality, I don’t think art is a trivial thing to devote four years (even a whole life!) to. I’ve spent the past four years practicing and thinking about my craft(s) and learning to grow my critical brain. Not “critical” like your mom when she’s telling you how tragically messy your room is (True Life); I mean the kind of critical that looks at something as minute as the specific typeface a newspaper uses or as massive as the historical, political, and social backdrop to a given art movement, and asks: “Why is that?” The kind of critical that questions everything to gain understanding, then channels that new knowledge into a creative impulse, resulting in work that’s more informed, more directed, more interesting. This kind of critical wants me to do something important with my concern and curiosity about the world, and knows that art, writing, and all manner of culture-making are more than important—they’re crucial. Even though I don’t really have a take-it-to-the-streets, grassroots-activist bone in my body, I know, because of my art education (and my personal dedication), that I have power. No—powers, plural. Superpowers, really. Here are just a few of them. (And they’re not just for art-school students—these are the kinds of realizations that I think/hope can help any person with a creative bent navigate their way out of self-doubt and into the zone of self-assurance, which is where the real shit gets done.)

Superpower No. 1: You can make your own media.

There are so many things to hate and be frustrated about in mainstream media—just for starters, how about the fact that 99.999% of the protagonists on television are straight, skinny, cisgendered, able-bodied white people? We spend a lot of time talking about how unacceptable this is, how it’s made so many of us feel inadequate in some way, but what do we actually do about it? Because here’s the dope thing: We can do a lot about it. We can make our own media. So many of you Rookies are doing this already with your own blogs, zines, and art practices. Let’s keep it going. Change the paradigm!

Superpower No. 2: If you are entertaining people, they will listen.

Music, film, comics, television, GIFs: These things are engaging because they are fun. People like fun—I mean, most of the time! Entertaining an audience is the easiest way to get them to pay attention. I think a lot of entertainment gets dismissed as vapid, because a lot of pop culture is vapid. But also, a lot of it’s not! There are shows like The Colbert Report that make me laugh and up my current-events game. There are films that have given me more insight into American history than any of my high school classes did. There are pop songs like “Flawless” that sample Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk about feminism and blow that genius up into a mainstream hit. In other words, these formats of entertainment are powers within themselves. Take them and run, young geniuses!

This is not to say that entertaining people is the only way to go, artistically. Sometimes it’s just not appropriate! Some subjects are too horrible or complicated or obscure or difficult to be expressible in a standard mainstream format. Not to mention that focusing on entertainment might run counter to your goal—the way we’re so easily sucked into popular culture and mass media may be the exact thing you want to confront and challenge in your work. Experimental and challenging work is what drives innovation, a word I am sick of hearing because it is so corporately co-opted and beige, but this kind of work is just as important to our culture as any massively famous artist’s. It keeps art relevant and radical and flexible and fascinating and reminds us that there are more possibilities than we can imagine.

Superpower No. 3: Images and words make our world go ’round.

Generally, most humans are smart, but we’re all quite impressionable. Yes, even you! Me! Everyone! It’s just true that what we watch, read, and look at affects how we see the world. Of course! We’re all aware of the pernicious influence that obscenely unrealistic beauty ideals in fashion magazines have on our psyches, right? It works the other way, too. Images that are positive or subversive are just as influential. I’m not talking about hokey, guidance-counselor-y “positive” media that’s all “Just be yourself!” and “Wholesome fun for all!” I mean, I hope we can all be a little more subtle than that.

I’ll use a really personal, simple example here: Around the age of 19, I rediscovered Beyoncé. I hadn’t listened to her much since her days with Destiny’s Child, a group I was obsessed with, but when I came back to her, my obsession returned, bigger and stronger this time. And I’m so glad it did.

Before I had a ton of self-confidence, I borrowed some of Beyoncé’s. Whenever I needed a boost—before my walk to school, say, or while escaping stressful social situations—I would go to my room and watch her music videos or listen to her albums, and I would feel a little better about myself. She was like a life raft that I clung to, cruising with grace and assurance through a sea of haters, NBD, high-fiving some dolphins on the way, until I reached the tiny dinghy that was my own self-confidence at the time.

One thing it was easy for me to feel bad about was my body, and a major source of that insecurity was my legs. I used to loathe my legs. I hated the way they looked from the time it became culturally sanctioned for me to feel that way—let’s go with age 12, thanks America—because my thighs are wider than my calves, which is true of the legs of most women in the world, but not the ones I was seeing in the magazines I was obsessed with as a teenager. Then, at some point deep into my Beyoncé fangirling, I realized that I didn’t feel that way anymore. I hadn’t been aware of changing my mind, but no doubt it was an effect of my hours upon hours of late-night GIF searches, music-video marathons, and pasting pictures of Beyoncé in my planner. Without even consciously clocking it, I was absorbing hundreds of images of a gorgeous, culturally dominant woman whose legs, while still very thin, had a curve to them, sort of like mine. Literally, just repeated exposure to images of Beyoncé’s legs made me feel better about my own. This may seem trite, but I think girls understand what I’m saying. This kind of small change creates ripples that radiate out bigger and bigger into your life. If the art in my life can change how I see myself, think about how art in society can change how people see people of color, queer people, poor people, and women, and how we treat the earth. This may sound like I’m really stretching a small thing, but small is a piece of everything. Life is just a big space filled with small moments, each of which is remarkably influential.

So if you’re a maker of pictures, you have, like, presidential power over your audience’s eye-to-brain receivers. Like all superpowers, this one can be used for good or evil. It’s my conviction that together, all of us Rookies can change society and its warped views on women. Some of us will do it through policy, some through education, others by speaking out and marching and generally shaking shit up. Some of you will do it just by setting an example with the way your live your lives. And some of us will do it through art.

People need to hear girls’ voices to balance out our hella lopsided world. We need to be out there sharing our views, our stories, our visions. Write memoirs, draw portraits, tell stories, make zines, compose songs—pretty much any creative practice can connect strongly with people and open up your world for someone else to understand better. I used to worry that there was something narcissistic and self-indulgent about writing and making art about my own life—like, who am I to think anyone would care about my life? Let me rephrase that: I used to worry that there was something narcissistic and self-indulgent about writing and making art about my life—and that that was bad. Real talk, everyone is self-indulgent and self-involved—we’re all selves here, come on. And the truth is, most people want to hear stories, and they like hearing stories from and about other people. Art is particularly good at forging human connection. Sharing our personal stories and points of view generates empathy, and empathy is basically our emotional H20 that makes, like, the photosynthesis of a productive society happen. Don’t doubt the power of your personal stories. The world needs more of them. Tell them, in whatever form suits you best. You don’t even have to wait to be asked.

~*~*~*~

I know I don’t need to justify creative pursuits to y’all: If you’re in it, you know that it just feels right. What I want to do with you is get real about the possibilities of what you can do if you happen to be creative and smart (I bet you are) and want to make a practice out of it (I bet you can). It is OK if you are more passionate about paintings than you are about protests, and it’s OK if you want to go to art school (or opt out of higher education altogether and just make your stuff) when there are so many other options. Art-things can give us surprising ways—important, constructive ways— to look at ourselves and our culture; without them, we’d probably sink into a sad puddle of complacency…boring!

It’s like this: Whether you go to art school or hone your art game in other spaces, now’s the time for you to learn how to use images, words, sounds, and other materials to shape our culture. I’ll be the first to admit that my art isn’t necessarily about to put food in people’s mouths. But I can use my creative impulse to connect with someone, change a mind, or contribute to some emotional experience that is enriching, because feelings aren’t frivolous. And chances are that if your art-thing is important to you, it will be important to someone else too.

IN CONCLUSION: What I really want is for you to never feel guilty for following the siren song of your creativity. Instead, feel special as fuq because you can use your inspired brain to do so many meaningful things. Learn your craft and hone your ideas. No matter how you do this, through school or ~street smartz~, you have two duties as a creative person: Be confident and constructive with your personal power…and then let it rip. ♦

30 Comments

  • Bumble-Bee January 3rd, 2014 7:47 PM

    i’m going to be starting my second semester as a studio art major, and i’ve been worrying about it being something meaningful. this reminded me that art is something that i love, and that i chose to pursue it for a reason. i really needed to read something like this, so thank you for this article

  • spudzine January 3rd, 2014 7:59 PM

    After reading this, I really, REALLY feel like crying. And a good kind of crying, because I’ve been in a creative funk recently. These past couple of weeks have been winter break for me(until Monday), and all I’ve been doing is catching up with tv shows I’ve been missing and drowning in anxiety over every aspect of my life. But today, I decided to write. And that was all I needed to feel whole again. For me, drawing and writing are both creative passions that make me feel like I’m not a waste of space. That I am an actual human being with something to contribute. But I’ve decided that the only way to do that is not to make the art for others, but to make it solely for me. It’s to make art that makes me want to keep on living, because that is the best kind. I hope to one day turn my creative passions into careers, but until then, I would just like to keep staying alive, and my art can help me do just that.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

    • Sophii January 3rd, 2014 9:07 PM

      YES. If I haven’t written for a while then I write again I feel like I can breathe properly again and that I have let a light into my life once more. However, I am also often happiest when I’m writing something that I do not plan on showing anyone else because I allow myself to be more honest and also more experimental with the language I use. Perhaps I will use some of it in the future when I am more distanced from the emotions. For now though, I am content with knowing that I have a pile of journals filled with my writing

      http://prettypassionsfinefashions.blogspot.co.uk

  • Kourtney January 3rd, 2014 8:05 PM

    this was so good!! I love what you said about what Beyonce means to you because she means the same to me. Her songs are just so uplifting and she’s so strong and she is such a beautiful woman and human being ugggh. Every time I listen to Flawless, I just get so hyped. Loved this Dylan!! <3

    • Kourtney January 3rd, 2014 8:16 PM

      during the past few months, I’ve really appreciated the concept of art and how one can express their beliefs, ideas etc., without words or anything that can easily be read and understood. There’s a twelfth grade girl at my school who made a huge painting of the opening of a vagina. It was called ‘A Statistic’ It stirred up some controversy among the teachers and students and it was almost going to be taken down unless she included a statement. I read it during lunch and she basically addressed rape culture and feminism (I can’t remember exactly what she said but I know she refused to be categorized as ‘a statistic’, one of the females who unfortunately are raped). I know that some students thought it was a little inappropriate and it made them nervous but I thought it was awesome, a long with her statement. Girls in my art class were really passionate about it as we had a class discussion about the piece and its controversy. So I think that using art to make people listen up is effective and important. Once again, loved this piece.

  • Gabby January 3rd, 2014 8:08 PM

    i love this so much <3 i feel so ready to take on THE WORLD

  • sungiant January 3rd, 2014 8:12 PM

    <3 <3 <3

  • Melissa @ WildFlowerChild January 3rd, 2014 8:16 PM

    This is so beautifully true.
    Sing out your inner self – let the world see you for the magical person you are. Art is the most freeing thing this world has to offer. Art is what makes us human. Art is what makes up beat.

    Melissa
    http://wildflwrchild.blogspot.com

  • beetziebat January 3rd, 2014 9:00 PM

    I really needed this article, I was just freaking out about my art not being good enough and about never getting anywhere because I left education earlier than most but this has really boosted my confidence so thank you xxx

  • Sophii January 3rd, 2014 9:02 PM

    I totally get what you mean about other people studying to save lives etc whilst you’re just there doing art but there’s a quote from The Dead Poet’s Society that says that occupations such as doctors save lives but artists make life worth living. I think I can probably say that without art (books, music, magazines, blogs, zines, films) I wouldn’t still be here. So, I guess thay art has saved my life! I think I’ll start watching Beyonce music videos before walking to school now! I’m excited about all the new art being made that challenges the issues within the mainstream media.

    http://prettypassionsfinefashions.blogspot.co.uk

  • Tiana January 3rd, 2014 9:31 PM

    I’m absolutely in love with this post. So unbelievable inspirational <3
    Tiana x
    http://Www.the-Romanticiser.blogspot.co.uk

  • January 3rd, 2014 10:24 PM

    I’ve been thinking about going to art school to pursue pottery, so reading this was extremely encouraging.

  • Ozma January 3rd, 2014 10:30 PM

    I really needed this. I have always expected to go to art school but my parents really disapprove. We constantly get into heated arguments about my future and they say things like that they will only pay for my schooling if I get a “real” degree . Lately, I had begun to wonder if my dreams were stupid and pointless. Thanks for reminding me that art is what keeps the fire in my soul burning and that I ought to be doing what makes me happy rather than my parents.

  • julalondon January 3rd, 2014 11:43 PM

    OMG I needed this so much. Thank you!!!

  • Stella January 3rd, 2014 11:55 PM

    Thank you for this. I’ve been wondering whether or not I should pursue art in college because it’s more of a “selfish” choice and won’t contribute anything to the world, but this article has made me feel better.

  • Maddy January 4th, 2014 12:28 AM

    “Some subjects are too horrible or complicated or obscure or difficult to be expressible in a standard mainstream format”

    I actually don’t believe that’s true. And I think that is one of the most beautiful things about art of varying forms.

  • m a January 4th, 2014 3:59 AM

    this is so, so great. ive been in a creative funk for months now. sometimes i feel like my art couldn’t possibly mean anything to anybody, and there’s no use in trying – but this has restored my faith and your enthusiasm has rubbed off on me – thank you so much for writing & sharing this! :)

  • Tyknos93 January 4th, 2014 3:33 PM

    Ugh this is making things so much more confuddled for me! lol
    I just changed my major to Biology even though I’ve been drawing and making shit my whole life. I have developed a new appreciation/ fascination with and for science this past year, but I’m constantly questioning whether it’s for me because I’m much better at art. I really want to know more about Biology and how things work, but I’m terrified of failure… Ugh I dunno, conflicted young adult emotions.
    Kudos to you for knowing what you wanna do with your life though!
    http://blazoningpens.blogspot.com/

    • Meara.L.Lovegood January 23rd, 2014 10:14 PM

      TWINSIES I’m the same, with physics and theatre. I’m starting uni in the fall though, and I’ve decided to do general arts and see what really calls me. I’m sure you’ll figure out which you want to spend you life doing, once you’ve had some time with Biology.
      Good luck, I feel you. :/

  • Cactus Woman January 4th, 2014 3:39 PM

    THANK YOU SO MUCH DYLAN.
    I really needed this. Your words are super empowering. I recently finished my first semester at art school. I had a drawing teacher who talked about stuff like this all the time – why art matters, how art has informed history and the media over time, how art has changed lives and educated the masses, etc. I hadn’t heard his words in a while and I really needed that push to encourage me to continue making my art during winter break. So thank you for providing that.
    I’m about to start painting. Watch out. :)

  • FlowersandDirt January 4th, 2014 5:10 PM

    this is perfect timing for me to read this! I’ve been having an art school crisis over the christmas break..like WTF am i doing!? shouldn’t i be learning a skill!? but you know what, who cares.. i’m nurturing my soul and feeding my brain and i’ll just be skilled at life =p Thanks so much for this article dylan :)
    All the best,
    Becca

    http://www.flowersanddirt.co.uk
    http://www.rebeccakayresearch.tumblr.com

  • Rhiannon January 4th, 2014 7:08 PM

    Love this article. I recently left college, thinking I would pursue art as a fresher the following year, but I chose linguistics instead. I really feel that art is something I love that much I will conquer it for escapism and freedom rather than promotion and business – it appeals to me that people like my work but I don’t wish to become competitive in the field like I would feel the need to by pursuing an art degree – I like the ability to express myself without the criticism that a lot of people recieve daily. Has anyone else chosen paths other than art for this reason I’m wondering?

  • Sofia Cort's January 5th, 2014 3:46 PM

    this is so cool i identify with this because i want to study graphic design!! ily

  • DoNotClick January 6th, 2014 12:04 PM

    This really brightened up my day. I’ve always had drawing and sketching as a hobby, but recently I’ve started taking it more seriously. This was posted at the right time for me too, because I just started an account for my art on Instagram. I’ve noticed that anime style is VERY popular, and it’s a beautiful style, but I don’t want to focus my practice entirely around it. Which is why my account is open to requests of all styles… Anyone interested? :)

    @Artbooker

  • alesssurprise January 6th, 2014 5:07 PM

    i love this SO MUCH

  • tweedcoats January 6th, 2014 5:11 PM

    Thank you for this…I have been kind of reconsidering doing the art program I am now and looking into other things just because I wasn’t sure. Now that I have been making more things I feel better and more expressive and I know that it’s going to be the right thing to do! This article kind of just gave me another push towards creating things, thank you!!

  • Jean January 7th, 2014 6:01 AM

    I freaking love this!!

    Such an awesome article – helps that I am in art college and at times (ok, most times) have to convince myself of why I am here / what is the point etc.

    Awesome article <3

  • fluorescentyesterday January 7th, 2014 6:27 AM

    Thank you so much for this! Like some of the other comments, I just want to say how this has inspired me. I’m in AP art in high school and I’m really debating whether or not I want to do art because it used to be so ‘fun’ but now it’s extremely stressful. But thank you for reminding me that I should use art to communicate!
    Love this.

  • CBM January 23rd, 2014 3:24 PM

    Such a lovely article! I really needed to hear this :)

  • Meara.L.Lovegood January 24th, 2014 12:17 AM

    THANK YOU! I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of art, and even though I know it’s important, I always feel like I’m trying to justify something that’s not really “useful.” I always feel that I could do something more productive with my life, like physics or architecture or something. So, this was really inspiring! TOGETHER WE WILL ALL CHANGE THE WORLD.